Opinion: How well will charities measure up?

Nick Cater, consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

It's all go on the GuideStar front. The UK service officially launches next week and its present and potential sister sites - from America to Africa and Europe to Asia - gather with US founder Buzz Schmidt in London today to discuss what sort of information systems civil society (and all of society) requires.

Not everything is looking rosy. Apart from its need for more money and the time it has taken to get going, a GuideStar UK search for 'Oxfam' produces 54 results. Is this useful, given that 51 of these - boy scouts to buddhism - have little or nothing to do with the behemoth of British aid?

However, the continuing rumbles of resentment from some in the charity establishment, about everything from GuideStar UK's initial government funding to their fear that, in time, it might offer enough information for comparison shopping and league tables, sound suspiciously like attempts to lock stable doors.

I've even heard a suggestion that GuideStar US is a busted flush and, by implication, that new sites elsewhere are pointless because charities can manipulate financial returns to present a false picture of their costs.

This sounds like a compelling case for tighter accounting rules, tougher oversight and backing for the very thing that sheds more light on charities and their figures.

Apart from the enormous value in having all the useful information about every charity available in one independent - i.e. away from the regulator - non-profit location, the GuideStar idea provides a level playing field for smaller outfits and encourages charities to file accounts on time and explain their mission clearly.

This is especially useful for the burgeoning charity sector in less developed countries, where anything that improves efficiency and trust will be a boost. If GuideStar UK and its sisters can in time network themselves, the prospects for cross-border philanthropy look far more positive.

For those fearful of comparisons, let's spell it out: what can be measured, however inadequately, will be measured, and if the only thing on offer is the fundraising ratio, that may become the only measure of a charity.

It really is up to charities - especially those in the same sectors - to develop a broader range of metrics that tell more of their story and allow valid comparisons.

Or are charities fearful of what the public might discover if their relative merits could be properly compared?

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